Solar Orbiter to Join NASA Sun Mission

By NTD Newsroom

Europe and the United States are working together to find more information about how the sun affects us.

The European Space Agency will launch the Solar Orbiter on Feb. 5. The Solar Orbiter will join NASA’s Parker Solar Probe to further study the sun and space together.

Europe’s Solar Orbiter will stay inside the orbit of Mercury and will not get as close to the sun as NASA’s Parker Solar Probe.

“It’s very difficult to bring complicated, large telescopes all the way, down inside the orbit of Mercury,” principal investigator on the Solar Probe Plus mission and a member of the Solar Orbiter team Marco Velli told NTD.

The Parker Solar Probe is a spacecraft launched in 2018 to journey closer to the sun than any other human-made object.

The first published findings from the Parker Solar Probe were released on Wednesday, offering fresh details about how the sun spawns space weather, reshaping astronomers’ understanding of violent solar wind that can hamper satellites and electronics on earth.

Parker Solar Probe
The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket payload fairing is seen with the NASA and Parker Solar Probe emblems, at Launch Complex 37, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on Aug. 8, 2018. (Bill Ingalls/NASA/Handout via Reuters)

One of the Solar Probe’s “really big surprises,” according to one of the researchers, was the detection of sudden, abrupt spikes in the speed of the solar wind that were so violent that the magnetic field flips itself around, a phenomenon called “switchbacks.”

“We’re finding these discrete, powerful waves that wash over the spacecraft, kind of like rogue waves in an ocean,” said Justin Kasper, a principal investigator whose team at the University of Michigan built a solar wind-sensing instrument on the Parker probe. “They carry a tremendous amount of energy.”

“This will dramatically change our theories for how the corona and solar wind are being heated,” Kasper added.

Solar Orbiter

Velli said there are some things the Orbiter will do that Parker can’t.

“Orbiter can measure in situ the particles, the composition, and can then look at the sun using spectroscopy,” Velli said.

The Solar Orbiter’s mission is to explore the sun’s poles for the first time, and the surrounding bubble that affects planets in the solar system. The spacecraft will travel above the sun to measure the magnetic field above the sun’s poles.

The mission will take six years, and there’s a possibility it will extend another four years.

The Solar Orbiter arrived in Florida last month and is ready for testing.

Reporting by Ilene Eng.

Reuters and NTD reporter Lorenz Duchamps contributed to this report.